John Singer Sargent 1856-1925
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The Millet House and Garden, 1886

By the second decade of the twentieth century, John Singer Sargent was understood to be the greatest living American artist; he was rivaled in watercolor by only a handful of practitioners of the medium on the international stage. Perhaps more than any other artist, Sargent used the medium of watercolor to express the progress of old world artistic ideals into a modern context. His watercolors, even more fully than his oils, interwove a broad range of subjects with a brisk new treatment of light and color. His early growth, in Paris and London, into a portraitist of style and distinction became the foundation for his exploration of impressionism and ultimately a dazzling expressive idiom for the twentieth century. He was renowned for his bravura line and stylish manner in oil—and these qualities are on even more dramatic display in his watercolors. The medium leaves its practitioner no room to hide from error or hesitation, and Sargent required none.

Sargent had worked in watercolor for some time, but by the early years of the twentieth century, he dedicated himself to the medium with new vigor. This commitment was certainly fueled in part by his travels: the fast-drying medium was ideal for compositions on the go, enabling him to dash off extraordinary color notes in the most spontaneous manner available. Beginning in about 1902, Sargent developed his technique from a sketching tool to a mastery, his oil paintings coming to resemble some of his watercolor effects. His confidence with the medium allowed him to inscribe works with minute detail, while also deploying broad passages of untouched paper to present bright light.